Hell hath no humor

HellHouseThe latest Newsweek reports on a theatrical breakthrough that had earlier escaped GetReligion's attention: The Hell House phenomenon is now playing to packed-out houses at the edgy Les Freres Corbusier in Brooklyn. Les Freres Corbusier also has staged plays with the provocative titles of The Shaker Sisters and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, but we'll leave those for another day.

Hell House was the subject of a parody in Hollywood last year, which -- as Newsweek reports -- led to this year's non-ironic, and gutsier, version:

The production was the result of a strange marriage. In 2004, Aaron Lemon-Strauss and Alex Timbers, Yale grads and friends, 23 and 26 years old, respectively, were looking for projects for their new theater company, Les Freres Corbusier, and while in Los Angeles saw a Hell House spoof done by a group of comedians. "I thought, 'Wow, this could be very powerful if done straight up'," says Lemon-Strauss. So last winter he picked up the phone and called Keenan Roberts, the originator of the evangelical Hell House movement and pastor of a Denver church. Over the next few months, Lemon-Strauss wooed Roberts, speaking to him at least once a week, hoping to convince the minister that his intentions were good, that a Hell House in Brooklyn would be no joke.

Roberts was skeptical. He loves pageantry and he also, it almost goes without saying, wants to save souls. "Sin destroys and Jesus saves," he says. "That is the message that Hell House creatively imparts." Inspired by Jerry Falwell's "Scaremares" from the 1970s, Roberts launched the first Hell House in his church in 1993. Three years later, he created a Hell House "kit," now available for sale online, which contains a script, a sound CD and a 263-page instruction manual. The kits retail these days for $299; Roberts says he has sold more than 800 of them.

Having cooperated with the producers of the Hollywood version, Roberts felt burned by what he saw as the secular world's dismissive approach to his ministry. "I was worried the New York version would be tongue-in-cheek," he says. "I want the message to do what it's intended and designed to do. If you don't play it straight and with the right degree of passion and commitment and design, the whole thing loses steam." Lemon-Strauss convinced him in the end, and with his blessing Les Freres Corbusier put on the show.

Most reports about Hell House routinely mention the concept's birth, as "Scaremare," under the dreaded ministry of Jerry Falwell. Two years ago, The Washington Post explained that connection in greater depth, pointing out that Falwell's production has run for more than 30 years, and that it's "the more tempered ancestor" of Hell Houses throughout the nation.

Post reporter Karin Brulliard provided this illuminating contrast between Falwell's approach and its transmogrified spawn:

Roberts, 39, said he spreads a message of God's love most of the year. But he said Hell House and other variations on the theme work -- especially for teenagers raised on violent movies and video games. About 13,000 people have been converted at Hell Houses, he said.

"Graphic is relevant," he said. "You've got to do something that really gets their attention."

Against that backdrop, Scaremare is fairly tame. [Steve Vandegriff, a professor of youth ministry at Liberty who directs the project], said some students have suggested an abortion scene, which he has vetoed. Even Falwell -- never one to shy away from controversy -- said he supports that decision.

"We don't try to push the envelope," Falwell said in a telephone interview. The Baptist television evangelist attends Scaremare each year.

Last weekend, Scaremare seemed to make its point well enough. Descending a dark set of stairs, a group of adolescent girls gripped hands and chanted, "I like Jesus. I like Jesus. I like Jesus."

Wesley Yang of The New York Observer did a fine job of interviewing audience members at the Brooklyn production:

"I'm mostly here to see a freak show," conceded Amy Slonaker, a 34-year-old lawyer and record collector. "But it also does actually dovetail with some of my intellectual interests," she said, interlocking her fingers together to illustrate the connection. Ms. Slonaker grew up in an Evangelical Christian family in Santa Barbara, Calif., and studied religion in college. "I decided that it was all bullshit in junior high school," Ms. Slonaker continued, "but I just kind of kept quiet and didn't rock the boat until I could finally escape."

Later, a clearly shaken Charles Mee, the playwright, stopped for a moment to reflect on what he had just seen. "First of all," he began, "it's amazing. ... The very thought that this is a play that thousands of people see and take seriously is almost unbelievable. You don't believe the text unless you already believe the context. It just seems stupid and preposterous and not funny -- just appallingly unbelievable and unpersuasive."

In one scene, a doctor wearing a yarmulke withholds treatment from a once-catatonic woman whose feeding tube has just been ripped from her throat. The woman has sprung back to life, but the doctor is unmoved.

"And so then you have to think as a left-winger," Mr. Mee continued. "Is all of our left-wing theater equally unpersuasive unless you already believe, unless it's confirming your prejudice? Is it really funny for somebody in the theater to just say the words 'George W. Bush'?"

Brian Dooda, a 29-year-old theater archivist who lives in Greenpoint, was more blithe. "I'm definitely here to laugh," he said. "But listen, I think this is probably something that even the evangelical kids laugh at."

Amid the theater's diligent efforts at avoiding irony, the Brooklyn version of Hell House left Yang feeling that even some hopeful words about an eternity in Heaven were insidious:

Then we found ourselves in a room filled with light arrayed with white curtains. A bearded man in a white robe appears wearing a beatific expression. It's an actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus. His amateurish delivery is a sign of his very professionalism. But after all the din and all the chortling we had done, the words he spoke cast a sudden hush around the room -- and even in the presence of all these unbelievers, you felt something move in you to be with these other people and hear kindly words and fair promises declaimed. It was perhaps the most insidious moment of all.

"If you believe with your whole heart that I was raised from the dead, and you confess with your mouth that I am the Lord," the actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus assured us, "you will be saved. And your name will be written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and every single person whose name is in that book will spend eternity with me in Heaven."

A Hell House documentary already has appeared, naturally. We'll take nominations now for the best director to bring Hell House to theaters in all its unexpurgated, cringe-inducing candor.

Please respect our Commenting Policy